Thunderbolt logo

Mortal Kombat – A Biography

Every generation goes through their share of cultural phenomena and, without question, Mortal Kombat was amongst the heavy hitters of the ‘90s. MK was the culmination of all the guilty pleasures of that decade: bloodshed, ninjas, babes in tight clothing, super powers, the paranormal, killer cyborgs, Asian culture, high flying martial arts, techno, and reveling in murder. Sure, these elements are still acknowledged today, but the hype is but a mere echo compared to the vibrant fervor of their original inception. Perhaps Mortal Kombat has ensured the longevity of these gimmicks, while also ensuring that it would be muttered in pop culture references for years to come (next to emulating Darth Vader’s signature breathing).

With the new Mortal Kombat upon us, let us take a stroll down the bloodied streets of memory lane and reminisce how a 20 year old franchise continues to walk among us.

screenshot

It has begun

Trendsetter

The popularity of Mortal Kombat influenced the creation of many ’90s fighters that attempted to follow the trend of violence and finishing moves. Titles include Killer Instinct, War Gods, Primal Rage, Time Killers, and even Clay Fighter.

Due to the infancy of the Internet at the time, the MK series was most notorious for being shrouded in a high number of game secrets and rumors, some of which led to the introduction of characters like Reptile, Jade, Ermac, and Noob Saibot (hints on how his name was created are in this article). Other gossips were not only false, but intentionally spread by the MK Team to mislead gamers, especially during April Fools’.

The MK1 development team was comprised of only four individuals: Ed Boon, the only programmer, John Tobias and John Vogel, the artists, and Dan Forden, the man responsible for the sound (Whoopsie!). Some sources stated that it took a total of 10 months to create the game, while others state that it was created in five and a half months. Whichever the case, Midway wanted Boon and his lone rangers to create a fighting game to compete against Capcom’s acclaimed Street Fighter series in one year’s time.

Originally, the crew wanted to create a game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, however the actor was already committed to assisting with another game, which never saw release. Van Damme’s influence would remain present in the creation of Johnny Cage: the premise of a Hollywood martial arts actor, same initials, and having an affinity for doing splits into groin punches.

The name “Mortal Kombat” was one that took months to conceive. Ideas that were tossed around included Kumite, Dragon Attack, Death Blow, and Fatality. It wasn’t until Steve Ritchie, former pinball designer, hung out with Boon in his office and saw the idea board for names. Someone wrote the word “Combat”, however the letter “K” was written over the “C” for humor sake. Ritchie suggested to Boon the name Mortal Kombat and the rest is history.

The team used digitized actors to portray their characters to give the game a realistic look. Over the years, this would be replaced with recording water sprayed actors in front of a gray screen with a Hi-8 camera, and then transferred to computer for post editing. Later on, the team would use the 100 electric sensor motion capturing tech.

MK1 was released in arcades on August of 1992, then released on home consoles September 13, 1993. The home release was amongst the largest of all time, with the use of the ‘Mortal Monday’ ad campaign of TV commercials. All ports of the game were released on the same date. Many might remember that, because of Nintendo’s strict policy of family friendly games, the SNES version was toned down considerably with no blood and less gruesome fatalities compared to the Genesis port. Example: Sub-Zero’s spine rip fatality only appearing in the Genesis version, while his freeze and shatter fatality was only on the SNES. Nevertheless, the game’s violence, realistic visuals, and involving gameplay was more than enough to pave its way to success.

screenshot

Kontroversy

Don’t try this at home.

On November 22, 1997, 13-year-old Noah Wilson was killed by his friend Yancy S. who placed him in a headlock and proceeded to stab him to death with a kitchen knife. Noah’s mother, Andrea Wilson, placed blame on the boys’ obsession with Mortal Kombat and attempted to sue Midway and all affiliates involved with the franchise. Wilson claimed that Yancy was trying to mimic Cyrax’s fatality with the kitchen knife, but any MK fan would remember that Cyrax never had such an attack. These same findings led the court to dismiss the case as Wilson had no grounds for suing or placing blame on Midway.

Obviously, a mainstream game with violence and gore would not be without its share of controversial matters. From 1992-1993, hearings were held by Senator Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl regarding growing concerns amongst parents and public officials over the mainstream release of violent games, Mortal Kombat being one of them. The result of the hearings led to giving the entertainment software industry one year to figure out a working rating system to respond to this growing resurgence, otherwise the government would take control. This led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or as we’ve all come to know as the ESRB.

The use of actors for creating characters apparently revealed unforeseen drawbacks in this medium. A number of actors have tried suing Midway and their affiliates for using their likenesses in unauthorized ways, only to be dismissed as they had failed to read the fine print.

Much of my peers may remember numerous news stories of violence in schools, on the playground, or amongst neighbors while growing up in the ‘90s. Much blame was directed towards the Mortal Kombat franchise, up until the arrival of the Power Rangers.

Controversies continue to follow the series even to this day. Amongst the most recent was the “Blood On The Carpet” TV commercial that was used for Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. The ad caused the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority to send a complaint to Midway, warning to consult policies prior to the release of future ads.

screenshot

Rise to Fame

Things I wish I didn’t remember…

The Mortal Kombat movie was accompanied by the release of a short animated VHS special entitled Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins. The end of the video included a secret code for MK3.

The controversies only fueled the MK franchise to go harder. With MK1 and MK2’s secured popularity, and MK3 right around the corner, the franchise followed the common trend of going Hollywood. By today’s standards, and by the standards of those with matured tastes, the 1995 Mortal Kombat film is laughable: horrible dialogue, subpar fight scenes, and lackluster acting. Yes, I too could’ve sworn this movie was awesome back when I saw it as a kid.

Regardless, the movie did a fine job in meeting the expectations of fans (who debate it as being the best video game to film adaptation of all time) and it was through this that the franchise skyrocketed to a plane of popularity that parents couldn’t even deny. The film’s soundtrack brought about the popularity of The Immortal’s “Techno Syndrome 7” Mix” that has gone on to becoming the eternal theme song of the franchise. The film also helped jump start the careers of Robin Shou and director Paul W.S. Anderson (who squandered it on his accursed Resident Evil films).

Following this was the creation of Mortal Kombat: Live Tour, a show that originated from New York’s Radio City Music Hall in late 1995, followed by a 200 city tour in 1996. Yes, that’s right, it had the live action actors, choreographed antics, laser light shows, lip synching, and encouraged participation of the young audience; the whole shebang-a-bang.

In September of 1996, USA Networks ran the short-lived animated series, Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm. This was an inevitable stage of the ‘90s popularity climb as eventually many movies or video games would have a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off. Retro trivia: Luke Perry voiced Sub-Zero and Ron Pearlman voiced Stryker. The cartoon also introduced the character Quan Chi, who eventually was brought into the games.

screenshot

Kombat Merchandise

What’s a franchise without some crazy merchandise? Aside from your usual T-shirts and posters, there were action figures made, tied in with both the games and movies, pog slammers, and Halloween costumes! The Mortal Kombat Kard Game was also created, and, for a real throwback, Tiger handheld games were developed, one included a card reading system.

Thrown into the mix was a number of novels and comic books. John Tobias wrote and illustrated his own slew of comics and Malibu Comics created their own series with its own individual canon. Surprisingly, there wasn’t any snack foods made… but when I think about it, I’m not sure how appetizing it would be to eat fruit snacks shaped like skulls with spines, or divulge in crimson cereal that can make your milk turn red.

screenshot

The Fall

So who performed the uppercut that sent the franchise into The Pit? Different speculations have been made as to the cause of the series’ decline.

Many blame the second movie, Mortal Kombat: Annhilation, for capsizing the franchise. After the movie’s poor reception, recognition of the series dropped drastically. A live action television series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, made to follow the at-the-time trend of medieval themed shows, was cancelled following the second movie’s failure.

Others blame the dropping of the ball on Mortal Kombat 4, the first foray into 3D with weapons, but with an awful fight engine. Meanwhile, Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero was only well met by a certain circle of fans – the creation of platform spin-offs was not universally accepted. The common consensus was that Boon and his crew were just running out of ideas.

Personally, I felt that the world had been MK’d enough and for even the most controversial, things have to end sometime, or in this case, take a breather.

screenshot

Let Mortal Kombat begin… again!

Despite the series’ shortcomings, it’s finally ready to make a true comeback. To sum up everything that has happened since the ‘90s, a lot of trial and error had to be made in order to solidify this moment of fruition: Mortal Kombat 2011.

Whether or not you’re a gamer, Mortal Kombat is a prime example of how much we shouldn’t underestimate the relevance of video games, and no other fighting game even comes close to reproducing its wonder. Its track record alone has brought much focus on the subjects of violence, how we raise our children, the lengths games can go in portraying mature matters, and how video game distribution has become something that even our governments wish to involve themselves in. Since the ’90s, Mortal Kombat has made a powerful impact in our social and cultural infrastructure and its tremors will continue to be felt for generations to come. Outstanding!

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @S_Chyou.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.